Letter from FIRE to Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco, May 2, 2012

By May 2, 2012

May 2, 2012

President Anthony P. Monaco
Office of the President
Tufts University
Ballou Hall, 2nd Floor
Medford, Massachusetts 02155

URGENT

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (617-627-3555)

Dear President Monaco:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses. Our website, thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is concerned about the threat to free speech presented by the punishment of Tufts University’s men’s crew team and two of its members due to the team’s Spring Fling T-shirts. The shirts, which read “check out our cox” and included a silhouette of a five-person rowing team, constitute protected expression under Tufts’ policies. Yet according to reports, a Tufts dean intervened because the T-shirt “was too phallic and promoted aggression and rape.”

Please correct us if you believe we are in error. According to an email posted at the Barstool Sports website on May 1, 2012:

The Director of tufts crew suspended the team from racing at new England championships [due to be held on Saturday, May 5, 2012] and took away the captaincy of two guys for wearing these shirts to spring fling. Some feminist reported them, then the director of rowing voluntarily suspended them for the race so the student wouldn’t have to deal with the administration. Thanks for sticking up for the team! The dean said the picture was too phallic and promoted aggression and rape. Judge for yourself.

This account matches a case submission received yesterday by FIRE. The account received by FIRE adds that the T-shirts were confiscated “by the director of rowing.”

Although Tufts is a private university, it promises its students that Tufts “is committed to free and open discussion of ideas and opinions.” While the sentiment on the shirt was undoubtedly meant as humor, humorous sentiments (even when seemingly crass or offensive) are not excepted from constitutional protection in the United States. (See generally Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988); FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)).

The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or “offensive.” The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) that “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Similarly, the Court wrote in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) that “the mere dissemination of ideas-no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Free speech principles do not permit the censorship or punishment of the crew team’s T-shirts.

Furthermore, it is beyond belief that a reasonable person would see the T-shirt as “promot[ing] aggression and rape.” Nevertheless, even if many people interpreted the T-shirt in this way and furthermore agreed that a crew boat silhouette is “phallic,” these interpretations simply do not justify censorship or punishment.

If it is true that under disciplinary pressure from a dean, the Director of Rowing saved the team and its members from university discipline by punishing them himself, the dean’s pressure violated Tufts’ core promises of free expression.

FIRE asks that you reverse the punishment of the crew team and its members and permit them to row in the championships this weekend.

Sincerely,

 

Adam Kissel
Vice President of Programs

cc:
Bruce Reitman, Dean of Student Affairs
Joe Golia, Director, Office for Campus Life
Gary Caldwell, Director of Rowing

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Schools: Tufts University Cases: Tufts University: ‘Cox’ T-shirt